Four years ago, Aijaz Khan was at a screening of his film Hamid (2019) at the Nitte International Film Festival (NIFF) in Mangaluru when a woman from the audience gave him a hug. She was the wife of an Army man, and had been so moved by the film that she felt compelled to express her feelings to Khan. Hamid is about a seven-year-old Kashmiri Muslim boy whose father goes missing, and the bond he develops with a jawan from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). “She told me she’d never seen the Kashmir conflict from the point of view of someone like Hamid,” said Khan, adding that this was among the most memorable responses that he’d received for his film which went on to win the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Urdu.
Hamid was adapted from Mohammad Amin Bhat’s play Phone No.786, and Khan said that he was drawn to the story because he was concerned about where Indian society is headed as conflicts over religious differences become polarising and heated. Though Hamid presents the Kashmir conflict from two seemingly opposite perspectives, by the end of the film, the viewer understands the circumstances are tragic for all concerned and that one can only repose faith in humanity if we want things to improve.
“My intention was to show that when you look at such huge conflicts from the point of view of a young person, the scale becomes smaller. Also, there are two sides to a coin, and it is important to understand this when making cinema,” said Khan.
Hamid won a slew of awards, but it could never hope for the kind of box office success that films like The Kashmir Files (2022) and The Kerala Story (2023) have achieved. The two films are among the biggest blockbusters from the Hindi film industry in recent times, and both rely upon exaggeration and misinformation to push an agenda that feels akin to right-wing propaganda.
For instance, Sudipto Sen’s The Kerala Story claimed 32,000 women from Kerala were forcibly converted to Islam through ‘love jihad’ and joined the terrorist organisation ISIS. When challenged in court, the makers were unable to prove the number and ultimately offered to remove it from the trailer. The figure remains in the film, which has now earned over Rs 100 crore. Its predecessor, Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, based on the forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley in the early Nineties, triggered incidents of people shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in theatres and openly calling for violence against Muslims.
Author and historian Manu S Pillai said the simplest meaning for the word propaganda is “to propagate” and it was used openly in the early 20th century. “For instance, a 1925 Madras Mail report speaks of how the Humanitarian Society was doing ‘propaganda work’ against animal sacrifice,” he said. “But with time, the term came to represent attempts to shape public opinion more sinisterly, not so much through supplying facts and figures, but by deploying vague allusions, fanning prejudices, and framing things in a way that are partially true but substantially either false or exaggerated. It is a representation of reality in a skewed manner, to serve specific ends.”
Pillai pointed out that it is true that some young women from Kerala did join ISIS – the National Investigation Agency puts this number at no more than six, according to The News Minute which has reported rigorously on these cases – but the film indulges in deliberate disinformation. “When this fact is blown out of proportion with claims that tens of thousands of girls have been hoodwinked into joining ISIS, leaving behind thousands of weeping parents and torn households, you know you have exited the realm of fact and entered that of propaganda,” he said.
The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story follow a similar pattern in concept, making and marketing. First is the idea that the films represent a truth that was hidden from the public eye for so long due to vested political and communal interests; second is the generous mixing of facts with falsehood to vilify the Muslim identity and underline Hindu victimhood; third is the inclusion of scenes with ‘shock value’, particularly involving the sexual assault of women which call upon notions of ‘honour’ (which are, in turn, intrinsically tied to the ownership of women’s bodies). On release, these films are promoted by leaders of the ruling dispensation and their followers continue the campaign online and on the ground. In the case of The Kerala Story, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana (all four have governments led by Bharatiya Janata Party) have given The Kerala Story tax-free status.
These films have struck box office gold and brought people to theatres in droves at a time when film industries are struggling to read the audience’s pulse post-pandemic, which makes their success a topic of concern for some. Veteran cinematographer and director PC Sreeram watched The Kashmir Files after Israeli director and screenwriter Nadav Lapid criticised its inclusion at the prestigious International Film Festival of India (IFFI). Lapid described the film as “vulgar propaganda”. “I thought it was such a blatantly one-sided narrative,” said Sreeram. “When a filmmaker’s perspective has an agenda, it will show up in the film as propaganda. The jury at IFFI called it a bad selection and I agree with them. It is an obscene propaganda film.”
Sreeram strongly believes that such films damage the social fabric of the country and is disturbed by the positive reception they’ve got from audiences. “It’s a sad state that the country is in. I belong to the same medium of cinema, and when it is misused, I feel like I should voice my opinion about it,” he said.
The popularity of these films – even after they’re exposed repeatedly through fact-checks – confirms internalised prejudices against Muslims and profit off this, said Pillai. “They also show Hindus as perpetual victims, and this victimhood discourse is also increasingly powerful as a political premise: The idea that in a majority-Hindu country, Hindus have been discriminated against while minorities have been ‘pampered’. This being the dominant frame of thinking, films that confirm it will sell,” he said.
Films like The Kashmir Files or The Kerala Story also serve as a reminder of the stereotypes planted in audiences over generations of popular entertainment. Muslim characters are rarely represented on screen outside of the context of terrorism. Writer and director Muhsin Parari has created several Muslim characters who break stereotypes, like the gentle stepfather from Sudani from Nigeria (2018), the conservative Shereef from Halal Love Story (2020) or the shallow and stylish Instagram influencer Beevi from Thallumaala (2022). Parari considers it a “political necessity” to centre his stories around a variety of Muslim characters at a time when the community is facing systemic isolation and misrepresentation.
“The Kerala Story has exaggerated numbers and misinformation and many in Kerala are objecting to it. But before this too, politicians, artists and intellectuals in the state have endorsed such narratives about Muslims in their public speeches, political statements and cinema,” said Parari, adding that the notion of Muslims as a savage, violent community is ingrained in the collective unconscious through such messaging. When Muslim artists, intellectuals and organisations respond to such ideas through democratic means, there is a certain paranoia that’s whipped up even among those who identify as secular or “anti-fascist”, noted Parari.
This is not to suggest Muslims should be depicted as uniformly angelic. Halal Love Story, directed by Zakariya Mohammed who co-wrote the film with Parari, is about a conservative Muslim religious organisation that sets out to make a “halal” film that conforms to Islamic principles. While the film depicts a wide range of Muslim characters, it also gently mocks the conservative beliefs within the community.
“Creating a counter-narrative to hate campaigns doesn’t doesn’t mean you depict Muslims as flawless, ideal beings. The point is to show them as flawed, ordinary people…as human beings, ” said Parari who takes his inspiration from the writings of Malayalam literary icon Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. In an interview, Basheer had said he grew up reading stories where the villains had the names of people in his family, and that this is why he decided to create new stories with the same names.
With The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story becoming money-spinners without the involvement of major stars, one can expect many more such films to be made in the future. In Tamil Nadu, The Kerala Story was pulled off theatres citing law and order issues while the West Bengal government banned it in the state. But do such moves help fight propaganda cinema or do they strengthen the perception that the ‘truth’ is being hidden from the public?
Everyone quoted in this article agreed that bans are unnecessary and ineffective, especially in the digital age. What then, is the best way to engage?
“Air your disagreements without getting carried away,” suggested Pillai. “Meanwhile, support films that show greater maturity. After all, The Kerala Story was released on the same day as 2018.” The Tovino Thomas-starrer 2018 is a survival thriller about how the people of the state came together during a devastating natural disaster. The film has made over Rs 90 crore worldwide and is set to breach the Rs 100 crore mark soon. “Fewer people may watch this Malayalam film, but in its own way, that movie is an answer: The Kerala story we actually recognise as Malayalis, as opposed to the stuff being inflicted on us,” said Pillai.